Manila, Beijing to resume oil and gas talks in May – Philippine minister

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines and China will resume discussions about jointly exploring oil and gas resources in the South China Sea in May, the Philippines’ foreign minister said.

The move is a sign of easing tensions between the two nations, which have sparred for decades over sovereign rights to develop natural resources in the strategic waterway.

“They were proposing that we begin talks again on oil and gas. I think we will begin in maybe around six weeks but…at a technical level,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said in an interview with local network GMA News aired on Wednesday.

Excerpts of Manalo’s interview were shared with the media by the Philippines Foreign Ministry on Thursday.

China claims jurisdiction over almost the entire South China Sea and the risk of disruption has made it difficult for the Philippines to find foreign investors, despite an arbitration court clarifying Manila’s entitlements in the sea.

Efforts to find a legally viable way to cooperate on energy exploration have stalled repeatedly, with the administration of Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, abandoning talks last June citing constitutional constraints and issues of sovereignty.

It was unclear which exploration sites will be discussed. Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping told his Philippine counterpart that China was willing to resume talks on exploration in non-disputed areas of the sea.

The resumption comes on the heels of the first in-person meeting between diplomats from Manila and Beijing since before the pandemic, where they pledged to use diplomacy to resolve differences peacefully.

“Those talks are going to begin discussing basically terms of reference, there’s no document yet. I can foresee that there will still be lots of discussions,” Manalo said.

The Philippine Supreme Court in January voided a 2005 exploration deal between state-run Philippines National Oil Company, China National Offshore Oil Corp and Vietnam Oil and Gas Corporation covering a 142,886 square kilometre (55,169 square mile) area of the sea.

It ruled the deal was illegal because the constitution stipulates the Philippines state must control and supervise activities, and companies involved must be majority Philippine-owned.

“In any negotiation we undertake on oil and gas, the Philippine position has always been that we will be guided by the constitutional requirements, and that’s how we will proceed in the next round,” Manalo said.

(Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz and Karen Lema; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor)